Q&A: Arthur Brown On The Roots Of Metal and Art In Times Of Social Upheaval

Years before Black Sabbath officially birthed heavy metal Arthur Brown was toying with demonic imagery, occult theatrics and hellish soundscapes. The British psychedelic provocateur crash landed in households in the summer of ’68 with a Top Of The Pops video for “Fire” that featured Brown sporting a blazing headdress and a band dressed in demonic masks, gleefully jumping around in a sea of fire like a posse of Biblical demons. Brown’s late 60s theatrics and iconoclastic music had a huge influence on the metal artists that followed, in particular Alice Cooper, KISS and Bruce Dickinson. In the decades since, Brown has created experimental music while sometimes living off the grid. After five decades, he recently returned to the states with Crazy World to revisit the madness for the first time since the Summer Of Love was an event, not a retro tee-shirt slogan. Decibel talked to Brown, now 74, about his role in the birth of metal and why art flourishes in times of political and social upheaval. 

The last time Crazy World was actively playing shows was a huge time of turmoil in the world. You are back on the road and some of the same things are happening, except worse. What do you think of the timing?

There’s no coincidence that the name of the band is The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown. As things crumble, some doors open and others get slammed. The psychedelic take on life becomes more prominent. I would agree: there are periods where things shift and the old order is crumbles. A lot of people start looking for a deeper vision to see where to go.

Do you find it discouraging that you are in your 70s and we’ve made halting progress, only to take giant steps backward?  Or is that just part of the march of history?

There’s that saying: “take a step backward in order to jump forward.”  You can look at the rate at which the political process is under fire and perhaps crumbling. But that can also open the way for new approaches to everything. Who knows what will be the outcome of these events? Right now, businessmen are running the country. That’s something a lot of people feel isn’t sufficient. There will need to be new visions. So maybe it’s a good period and that’s why the psychedelic approach becomes important.

Could it be a case that, like in the 60s, some people will work to change or expand their consciousness and deepen their understanding of the world?

I think what’s happening is that worldwide systems have been embraced by certain cultures. But they don’t answer the questions we have about life or how to get rid of poverty or find a sustainable way of living.  Something I read recently noted that because the way of doing things through the logical mind have not provided us with answers the only true political act is an inward act to transform your consciousness. Things in the outside world support a view that is rigid and static and exploitative. What we are left with is our responsibility for the world we have and to other creatures in that world. That means a shift in consciousness beyond nations and particular ideologies.

When you decided to bring Crazy World back on the road how did you find the people who could play the music and honor your vision?

It started back when I was doing my own change of consciousness. It came to the end of a journey I’d set on. I was living in Portugal studying. I was living on a hill in a yurt and thought: what am I going to do?  I think what I do best is communicate to humanity through music. (Later) in England, I met a woman who was busking on the tube with a keyboard. She said: “You look like someone whose poster I have on my wall.”  And I said: “Who is that?” And she said: “Arthur Brown.” And I said: “That’s me!” I got her to send me a CD of her band and we played together for four years. I then got involved with other people from Brighton when I was living in a yurt on field. A lot of other people came along who were attracted by the energy. It’s evolved through several personnel changes, mostly as people moved on to their own careers as performers. Brighton has a huge music community. I’ve now ended up with a band in Europe. In the United States I’ve worked on and off since the 80s with a superb bass player named Bruce Hughes. And I came along with a guitarist named Carter Arrington who is really phenomenal. When this tour started I asked them to put together the other musicians.

What sort of direction do you give musicians about playing your songs live? Do they come knowing all the nuances?

They’ve been listening to it for several months and they know the pieces inside out. My direction to them is that now that you know it please don’t play it note for note. Don’t make mistakes but I want you to be able to take off into things. It’s like a jazz band: play the same tune each night, but slightly different depending on the feeling and atmosphere. I’d rather play it that way than exactly the same each night.

Is there a deep familiarity with your work and career in the states or are you still best known for “Fire”?

The general public knows me for “Fire.” There’s another category that will know “I Put A Spell On You.” Then there are people who are still alive and saw us in the late 60s. They have a wider knowledge. The young people today – a lot of them have gone back into the history. They might have read things that Bruce Dickinson or Alice Cooper said about us. That leads them to the website where they can see all of the different music I’ve created.

The younger generation can just go on the computer and tap into everything you’ve ever recorded.

Yes, so it becomes a question of why did they look? It’s usually the mention by other people who have been influenced or mentioned us in books.

You have been a huge influence on the aesthetic of heavy metal, particular the look and the stage shows. How much of the music that you influenced have you heard?

Back (in the 60s) people didn’t like to talk about death and stuff. But metal did, and some people got into horror tales. When I (later) toured in England Bruce Dickinson came to see me and I got to look at some of their music. I play quite regularly in Sweden and Scandinavia and they have a huge metal thing there – it’s all about the innate rhythms that are in almost sheer noise. I met a guy who is a chef in one of the most progressive restaurants as far as food goes – no gluten and vegan. He was a vocalist in a black metal band. I checked it out. Metal is like soul, which blended gospel and R&B, because there are all of these subdivisions. I try to keep my mind open to all of it.  I like the arpeggios and the distortion both of instruments and voice. There are times when I find it to be a little too much or too heavy. I’ve even done guest appearances on albums in Sweden.

I have to think that if the “Fire” video you did for Top Of The Pops in 1968 would still be incredibly striking in 2017. When it came out there was nothing like it in popular music.

At the time it was quite revolutionary and shocking to a lot of parents. We also did the Tom Jones show and right in the middle of the family entertainment there is this wildness. In Spain, when the song was first played, a friend of mine was in a bar. Everyone stopped and applauded at the end. They have a sense of the surreal and the dark. If you look at the videos back then people were in suits with mop top hair and it does really stick out as something different. There was sensuality about it.

Are you familiar with the band Ghost? All of their singers wear demonic masks much like your band did roughly five decades ago. It’s just one step removed from Crazy World.

When you bring something new – which ultimately was just a pool of my influences – it can set up a genre. Some people then take that genre and move it in a new direction. With Ghost it’s remained visually in my area but musically it’s different. There can be all sorts of different emanations from an original idea.

What did you think of how “Fire” was used in the movie Hot Fuzz?

(loud laughter). It was a good fit! “Fire” was shocking and maligned as Satanism when it came out. Years later it’s part of mainstream pop culture and mainstream movies.  Obviously, it was a very well made movie and successful and they were very careful about what they chose. To be still relevant after all this time, and to still be alive, is very cool.